The Inaugural Black and Latina Women in Medicine Forum

by Nzuekoh Nchinda, MS1

On Friday, February 24th, the John E. Bowman Society Lecture Series of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine hosted “Empowerment Stories,” the Inaugural Black and Latina Women in Medicine Forum. Over 60 medical students and housestaff from all of the medical schools in Chicago, including three attendees who flew in from Boston, gathered for an evening of encouragement and community. The event opened with narration of Lucille Clifton’s poem, “Won’t You Celebrate with Me” by the student organizers, MS1 women of SNMA and LMSA:

“won’t you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did I see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”

During the forum, moderator Dr. Milda Saunders (left) presents a question to the panelists (L-R) Dr. Monica Peek, Dr. Rochelle N. Naylor, Dr. Doriane Miller, Dr. Sonia Oyola, Dr. Mariana Glusman, Dr. Melanie Rose Gordon, Dr. Pilar Ortega, and Dr. Keme Carter.

Monica Vela, MD’93, Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs and Director of the Bowman Society, emphasized the importance of such an evening—a precious opportunity to learn from role models, foster relationships, and be inspired.  A panel discussion led by Milda Saunders, MD, MPH then followed, featuring Keme Carter, MD, Monica Peek, MD, MPH, Mariana Glusman, MD, Melanie Rose Gordon, MD, Sonia Oyola, MD, Pilar Ortega, MD, Doriane Miller, and MD, Rochelle N. Naylor, MD. The panelists candidly shared their experiences on topics such as:

  • Rising from situations in which one is devalued in the workplace;
  • Handling feelings of obligation to represent all Black/Latina women;
  • Motivation for being involved in diversity work;
  • Balance of family life and demands of job obligations;
  • Choosing to have children in light of career advancement; and
  • Building relationships with mentors, advisors, and institutional sponsors.

As this event happened around the same time as the Black Men in Medicine Forum, we and the attendees of that forum were able to share our thoughts and experiences with each other. Having two separate events was beneficial, as it allowed both groups to cover a broad ground of different discussion topics. Given the intersectionality of gender and racial discrimination in the system of privilege that is still evident in the medical field, discussion at this forum seems to have been different from that of the preceding Black Men in Medicine Forum. Panelists at the Black and Latina Women in Medicine Forum emphasized the importance of self-care, investing in relationships both at work and at home, holding to joys of practicing medicine, developing arrangements of part-time and full-time work, and fostering relationships with mentors, advisors and coaches.

“Hearing about each panelist's journey into the medical field, with all its challenges and rewards, was incredibly inspiring. The honesty with which they discussed the challenges that come with being a woman of color in medicine was powerful, and their advice for those of us entering the field about how to approach these challenges was invaluable. Hopefully there will be more events like this moving forward!” – Bitania Wondimu, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, MD Class of 2020

Watching these brilliant physicians, women of influence, share their moments of trial and triumphs was a poignant experience. Their mere presence validated the presence of the attendees, showing us that there was indeed a place for those who looked like us in the world of medicine. Their words encouraged that we had agency in who we saw ourselves to be. It was most inspirational to hear reiterated during the panel that one’s place in medicine can be carved out in a way that is most meaningful to her, in a way that brings her joy. For many, volunteer work and engagement in programs to build diversity was especially rewarding.

We were reminded to find ways, throughout our life, to encourage those who seek a similar trajectory, just as the women seated before us had made a way for us. However, particularly for the medical students, it was essential to remember to remain balanced and to not become so overly involved in extracurricular activities that one loses focus on developing in becoming best physician she can be. We were encouraged to not only consider our career goals but also our life goals; the panelists shared how so often pursuing the latter grew the former.  We learned to seek environments where who we are and what we aspire to do are valued and encouraged. In a time in which our society struggles reach tolerance, it was especially powerful to hear that we were deserving of more—of being celebrated.

At the conclusion of the forum, Dr. Milda Saunders (left) and Dr. Monica Vela (right) stand alongside student organizers (L-R) Julia Naman, Amarachi Erondu, Maria Espinosa, Nzuekoh Nchinda, Ceciley Scarbrough, Catherine Castro, and Olivia Jordan as they present gifts of appreciation to the panelists.